Olivier Roy writes: The murderous attack on a Jewish school, and before that on French soldiers, has brought a strong emotional reaction in France. Once again, the specter of disenfranchised and radicalized young French Muslims hovers over the destitute neighborhoods of France’s cities. Fifty years after the end of the war in Algeria, a new kind of civil war seems to be raging.
A closer look, however, shows that the picture is rather different.
First, the 23-year-old perpetrator of these acts of terror, Mohammed Merah, was a loner and a loser. Far from embodying a growing radicalization among the youth, he stood at the margins not only of French society but also of the Muslim community.
Merah was not known for his piety: He did not belong to any religious congregation; he did not belong to any radical group or even to a local Islamic movement. A petty delinquent, psychologically fragile, he tried to enlist in the French Foreign Legion and then left for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Merah found in Al Qaeda a narrative of solitary heroism and a way, after months of watching videos on the Internet, to achieve short-term notoriety and find a place in the real world. In this sense, he was far closer to Anders Behring Breivik, who went on a killing spree in Norway last July in the name of a hatred of Muslims. People like these are difficult to spot precisely because they do not belong to a network of militant cells.
Yet the crimes of such men are often misconstrued as symbolizing different problems. Whereas non-Muslim lone terrorists like Breivik tend to be called mentally ill, Muslim lone terrorists like Merah are seen as embodying “Muslim wrath.” This is to miss an essential point.
Consider Merah’s attack on the French soldiers. If his killings at the Jewish school in Toulouse were a terrible reflection of the kind of anti-Semitism typically promoted by Al Qaeda, his attack on French soldiers — specifically Muslim ones — was novel and revealing of something else. He saw the soldiers as traitors: French Muslims fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The gap he perceived between himself and them reveals the gap between the few Muslims who become so marginalized as to murder and the many more who find ways to integrate. [Continue reading…]